Wagoner’s After the Point of No Return

I’ve been reading David Wagoner’s poetry almost as long as I’ve been reading poetry. He’s certainly the first contemporary poet I ever read. He taught a freshman English class I took at the University of Washington, and at the beginning of the class I went to the University Bookstore and bought his first two books of poetry. So, when his latest book, After the Point of No Return, came out there was never a doubt I would have to buy it, too. Old habits are hard to break, particularly since I’ve long identified with Wagoner’s poetry, especially those poems which center on the Pacific Northwest and are “nature” poetry. In fact, I sometimes think he’s not recognized enough for his nature poetry because he’s such a prolific poet who seems ready to turn almost any subject into a poem.

Personally, though, I almost invariably prefer the nature poems and the poems where he seems to focus on his own personal life to the clever but, for me, less moving poems like “Marksmanship” which cleverly describes a shooting range but leaves no lasting impression, and even leaves me wondering if he’s ever fired at such a range. I’ll have to admit that when you’re as familiar with someone’s poetry as I am with Wagoner’s it’s hard to find a poem that really moves you, especially on major themes. It’s easy to get a sense of deja vu. I couldn’t avoid that feeling for many of the poems, but luckily there are still poems that grabbed my attention.

“Meeting a Stranger,” though, isn’t a typical Wagoner poem; in fact, it reminds me more of a favorite Mark Strand Poem I’ve written about previously, “The Tunnel.”

You find a path. You follow it
It turns as faint as you are.
You see this stranger
walking toward you
from nowhere and frowning
as if you shouldn't be there
but should get out of the way.
You realize you've been talking
to yourself, even singing.
You've broken his silence
by breaking yours.
You lower your eyes.
You turn your face aside.
You smile. You offer him
your no-longer-bleeding,
more or less clean hand.
He shakes his head.
He keeps his distance.
He edges around you.
You try to tell him
you're lost. Nothing but breath
comes out of your mouth and his.

Perhaps I found this poem appealing because I’ve spent considerable time the last few weeks looking back over old photos and have often been pleasantly surprised by them, nearly as often as I’ve been unpleasantly surprised by how bad some I published on my blog seen in retrospect. It’s comforting to see ourselves as a single person, an integrated whole, but it’s hard to hold to that myth when we actually compare our past work and our past actions to our present attitudes and beliefs.

Perhaps even more to the point is that “After the Point of no Return” many of us naturally begin to question our goals in life. The path taken becomes more and more obscure as we travel on until there’s hardly any sense of direction left at all, just the mechanical, plodding step after step. Some of us find ourselves talking to ourselves, (personally, I still contend I’m just talking to my old companion, Skye who has left me a little behind).

Perhaps meeting yourself heading in the opposite direction, working at cross purposes to yourself, is the ultimate recognition you really don’t know where you’re going, not a fact everyone will readily admit. Most of us, and particularly poets. fear when “nothing but breath/comes out of your mouth and his.” We all want to tell our “truths” and have others listen.

6 thoughts on “Wagoner’s After the Point of No Return

  1. Mighty philosopical, even for you, and therefore likely to stir similar associations with those who follow your blog. My quick read on both the poem and your comments includes: 1) I’m nobody, who are you/Are you Nobody too? (Dickinson): 2) As I was walking on a stair/I met a man who wasnt there/ He wasn’t there again today./I wish, I wish he’d go away.” (Stevenson). 3) As I sd to my friend/John, ….I sd/shall we and why not/drive a goddamn big car?/Drive he sd/Fr Christs sake look out where yr going.” (Creeley) who also has a poem about shaving in which he says that he in terror hung the wrong face back? John Ciadi has a poem in similar vein, but it slips my memory right now. I suppose you see that I recognize a theme here, whether inadvertent or not..and with Waggoner, it’s likely he’s aware, playing against it. He is a playful poet above all. That may lead some to take him lightly. Whoops…three other associations: 1) I have been one acquainted with the night/I have walked out in rain and back in rain (Frost); 2) There was a crooked man/Who walked a crooked mile/He stole a crooked sixpence/And crossed a crooked stile. (nursery rhyme) 3) and finally, remembered imperfectly like several others here, William Stafford comes to mind because he often spoke of his writing/walking and many of his poems have that flavor even when walking is not mentioned. So I’d say the undertow of this poem is that it expresses something that connects with you unconsciously, not just in terms of topic but the rhythm of walking/thinking which you do so regularly.

  2. Oh golly Loren – this really hit home, particularly as a relative has been staying and she brough a collection of photographs from many years ago. You look at yourself fifty years ago and you don’t recognise anything of the person you have become.
    I think walking is probably the easiest way to connect with oneself – particularly walking alone – followed by lying awake in the middle of the night.
    I do not know the poet you mention at all but I shall look for him now. It is our poetry meeting next week and as far as I know no-one has ever read him – so thanks for introducing me to a new poet.

  3. great post and responses. my favorite dw line was always when he had the fish fishtailing up the stream. can’t recall the poem or the exact line, but the image never leaves me. kjm

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